The mysterious island

Deep within these grooves of Academe,
In quiet cubicles, white and bare,
Hunched homunculi strain and labor
(Like monks of old in cloistered cells
Balancing angels on needles’ points)
At tasks bizarre with tools outrageous
Through days and nights of anguish unrelenting.

Edith Eliot1
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Putnam correspondence

Over on my website, I’ve posted an e-mail exchange I had with the late Hilary Putnam in 2011-12. The text of it has been knocking around on my hard drive, and it’s apt to get lost if I don’t put it somewhere. So posting it is as much for my own record keeping as for anything else.

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Measuring influence

At The Splintered Mind, Eric Schwitzgebel gives what he describes as “a rough measure of current influence in … ‘mainstream Anglophone philosophy’.” His method starts with citations in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Considering only authors born after 1900, he tallies up the number of distinct articles in which they are cited.

The highly-influential Hilary Putnam is cited in 168 articles. Using that to ostensively define a unit, identify that as 1 Putnam of influence.

Putnam is in third place on the list, behind WVO Quine (1.14 Putnams of influence) and David Lewis (1.59 Putnams).

The inevitable vanity search and a little math reveals that I have 77.4 milliPutnams of influence.1 Should I be chuffed about that? Can I put it on my CV?

The buzz, the bees, and belief

I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.

Leonard McCoy

I posted yesterday about what I called the Positive Buzz fallacy:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

I realized today that it is closely related to a fallacy that people often commit in misunderstanding natural selection: An organism is fittest in a given environment, and the fallacifier infers that it’s simply best.

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All abuzz with fallacies

Over at the Blog of the APA, Mark Satta coins a new fallacy.1 He calls it the Buzz Aldrin fallacy, riffing on a quotation he attributes the astronaut:

When President Kennedy wanted to get to the moon, he didn’t invite poets and philosophers to the White House, he called upon scientists and engineers. That’s how you get stuff done.

This shifts from the obvious (that philosophers and poets don’t do the detail work of building rockets) to a sweeping claim (that calling scientists and engineers is what you do when you want to get stuff done). Satta supplies an implicature, reads it as an inference, and extrapolates a general pattern:

  1. Activity x does not contribute to goal y.
  2. Therefore, activity x is not valuable.

This is a fallacy, which he names and talks about. But here’s another fallacious pattern closer to the surface of the quotation:

  1. Activity z is the best way to accomplish goal y.2
  2. Therefore, activity z is the best way to accomplish goals.

To distinguish these, we might call the first the Negative Buzz fallacy and the second the Positive Buzz fallacy.

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Presuming that money is like bread

A relative of mine recently shared a gif on Facebook of ‘Five Best Sentences’. I try not to post whenever somebody is wrong on the internet, but responding to the list made me realize something about so-called economic conservatives:

Many conservative truisms only make sense if you assume money is like bread and that anything of value is like money.

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The Springtime in Paris View of natural kinds

In March 2014, I attended a workshop on natural kinds in Paris. Other attendees included Matt Slater, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, and Thomas Reydon. It seemed to me that, although we disagreed about many of the details, we shared a core conception of natural kinds.1 I mooted the idea of writing a consensus statement. We could give it a flashy name, refer to in our writing, and then maybe other people would start using the phrase too.

Today, while moving the last papers out of my old office, I came across an outline from the conference. Here I’ve quoted it exactly, including the all-caps title.2 Despite agreement from at least some of the others, nobody else assented to sign on.


  • NKs should be understood by way of scientific classification
  • they are natural to the extent that the world constrains classificatory categories3
  • metaphysical depth is attained by starting superficially and, by considering evidence, making contingent a posteriori claims of greater depth
A game store in Paris.